If you want to outlaw a book, simply make it seem shameful to read.
That’s the logic of Princeton philosophy professor Kwame Anthony Appiah’s new book, The Honor Code: How Moral Revolutions Happen. Appiah argues that a culture’s sense of honor galvanizes moral revolutions.
The British slave trade, the Chinese tradition of foot binding, the aristocratic custom of pistol dueling—each of them endured for generations. Yet each of them ended swiftly, Appiah argues, because a group of people said, “Hey, this is shameful.”
Focusing on those three historical examples, Appiah illustrates how people want to stand in an honorable position in their society. When you render a practice dishonorable, people will cease the practice to regain their respected status. As soon as citizens began frowning upon their dueling leaders, princes and dukes gave up their guns.
Slate’s Paul Berman, however, questions the accuracy of Appiah’s theory. Oddly, in each of the movements Appiah mentions, Christianity lead the charge. Berman writes, “Christian evangelizers played the leading role in the anti-slavery movement. A hundred years later, Christian missionaries, as Appiah shows, played a leading role in the Chinese campaign against foot-binding, too.”
Despite these questions, Berman and many others regale the book for its moral fervor. As Berman writes, “How can any proper reform campaign hope to succeed, after all, if the intellectual leaders of the campaign refrain from conjuring an enthusiastic mood?”
(Berman was also captivated by Appiah’s freewheelin’ use of the exclamation point, “a form of punctuation that, for a long time now, has been regarded in respectable publishing circles as a fatal sign of childish naiveté. The exclamation point,” he writes, “ought to be regarded, I believe, as a useful tool for expressing the life-affirming quality known as gusto. And Appiah agrees!”)
So you want a revolution? Maybe you just need to call out someone’s honor—with gusto!